Canada's system of government has its origins in the British model and practice. This inheritance includes many conventions that pre-date the implementation of parliamentary democracy. Orders-in-council provide evidence of this older tradition, in which the monarch had the sole authority to create and implement laws. Orders-in-council are seldom referred to Parliament for debate; they are implemented directly through the authority of the Crown as embodied by the governor-in-council.
This powerful prerogative of the governor-in-council -- namely, the governor general acting upon the advice of the Cabinet -- has always provided an important legislative convention for the Canadian executive. Historically, the federal Cabinet has taken action through orders-in-council on matters as routine as civil service appointments, and as far-reaching as decisions on Aboriginal lands.
In the early decades of Confederation, the range of issues addressed through orders-in-council was in part a feature of the casual and largely inscrutable conduct of Cabinet. Submissions requiring the attention of the governor-in-council were simply collected in a box by the Clerk of the Privy Council, who would review the recommendations and rejections following the meeting. Early Privy Council minute books contain general decisions, but not the substance of Cabinet's discussion. Detailed records of Cabinet conclusions were not maintained until the end of the Second World War.
Orders-in-council provide tangible evidence of executive priorities, impacts and decrees before that time. Browse the Virtual Cabinet to see orders-in-council in action, or learn more about these important legislative instruments in How Orders in Council Work.